THE STATE VISIT is still the leading story on Irish news websites. Here in Britain, come Day Two, Prince George playing with another baby is enjoying higher billing than his great grandmother entertaining Ireland’s head of state.
It appears this visit means more to us than them. Though I wonder how much it really means to us.
When you work in the media this is certainly a big deal, like it is to those working in diplomatic circles and high-profile community organisations. Does it mean much to the great majority of the half-a-million plus Irish people living in Britain?
I have tried to find out. In the absence of a proper survey, I’ve asked a lot of people their thoughts. It was by no means a scientific survey, but it was an interesting sample of journalists, builders, bankers, artists, barmen, childcare workers and shop assistants. Basically, I’ve bothered quite a few people. Nobody, until a day or two ago, seemed to even know this is happening. The most stark response came from one emigrant who left Ireland in 2004: “Who’s the Irish President again?”
The overwhelming mood I found has been indifference. I don’t think this indifference is necessarily a bad thing. I think it speaks far more clearly of the positive relationship between Irish and British people than whatever is being said in Westminster or Windsor does.
To begin to try to explain this position, let’s do a quick scan of some of today’s headlines:
‘The Irish and British are becoming good and dependable neighbours and better friends’
‘Queen says Ireland and Britain should live as friends’
I believe these headlines are redundant. They reflect the sentiments of our nations’ heads of state and political hierarchies and have taken a long time to catch up with the general feeling of their respective citizens.
I have nothing against the Queen. I think the idea of a royal family is ridiculous and anachronistic but I’ve always liked the Queen. Even when her subjects weren’t far off baying for revolution because she wasn’t visibly grief-stricken enough for their liking over Diana’s death, I’ve always regarded her as a dignified and decent lady.
I have nothing against President Higgins. Honestly, whenever he speaks I find him to be at least 80 per cent full of hot air but his heart is in the right place. It’s clear he cares about his country and its people. Also, let’s face it, were it not for some dodgy shenanigans in an RTE studio, we would have been represented by a fella from Dragon’s Den, going forward.
My problem is with neither Queen nor President. It’s more with how, to a backdrop of pomp, they are telling us stuff that we already know – but taking credit for it.
British and Irish relations didn’t improve dramatically with the Queen’s visit to Ireland. Nor will they be enhanced as a result of this State Visit. The truth is that Irish and British people have got on well for years, decades even.
There is a narrative of the Irish in Britain that gets spun time and again. It was hell here for us when the bombs were going off in the 1970s and 80s, we are told. Things improved with the ceasefire and now “relations are at an all-time high!”
This line is rarely questioned but, to me at least, it doesn’t address the wider picture. My mother worked as a supply teacher in London during the 70s. You would imagine she would have had a hard time in the city’s rougher schools then, given that bombs were going off and she had a northern Irish accent. Not so, she said. Never a cross word was spoken to her about her nationality or religion.
For years I imagined her to be lucky – one of the few that escaped the hatred and assaults that we’ve been bred to believe tainted the lives of the Irish in Britain at the time. But then I moved here from Ireland myself. Over time, I’ve spoken to an amount of older Irish people that were here then and they rarely say they had a hard time. I’ve found the contrary to be true. They will often praise the character of English people.
They do so because the English are decent – great in fact. Generally, they have an innate sense of fairness and accept people from all over the world into their society.
The average Irish man or women is great too. They’re resourceful, industrious and settle well wherever they land. In common with the British, they like a few drinks and having a laugh. When they met, the results were overwhelmingly positive.
Talk now of relations being at an all-time high implies there was a recent history largely filled with tension. But for over 60 years Irish and British people have worked together in warehouses, building sites, offices and hospitals. They’ve stood on the same football terraces, drank in the same pubs, lived on the same streets. We’re not just friends, we’re family. The staggering amount of people here who, like myself, have one Irish and one English parent is testament to that.
The activities of fanatics on both sides strained relations at certain times and in certain areas, but, I am convinced that in the main things have been harmonious. Even at the height of the Troubles, how many people in Britain had their lives affected, or even ended, by terrorists?
Unfortunately, a lot did. But when you compare it to the amount of British people who were ushered into this world by Irish midwives, were cared for by Irish nurses, lived and worked in buildings constructed by the Irish and travelled between them on tracks and roads laid by the Irish, you realise that the dark never overtook the light. It never came close.
Similarly, the Irish in Britain may have looked on, traumatised, by the actions of the Crown forces in the North of Ireland in decades gone by. Yet they were intelligent enough to realise that the British establishment did not mean the British people.
This week in the palaces and parliaments they speak of history being made. They’ll talk of friendship and trust and shared values. They’ll talk about all the things that we’ve already known about and lived for a long time.
So officialdom does what it does: plays catch-up in an expensive and ceremonial and self-important fashion.
Meanwhile the people, largely indifferent, continue to lead the way.